How to Turn Specialty Foods Into Gold

Specialty foods is a unique but wide-ranging category with one important commonality: high margins.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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Not up for an Oscar or an Emmy this year? No Golden Globe in sight? You could still walk away with a SOFI. The Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (SOFI) prize is awarded each year to the best innovators in the specialty foods category by the National Assn. for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT).

NASFT defines specialty foods as "foods of premium quality that are often made by small or local manufacturers or have exotic or ethnic flavors," says Louise Kramer, communications director for the New York-based association (www.specialtyfood.com). The descriptors "specialty," "premium" and "exotic" should be read as "high margin" by small and large food processors alike. These products have great potential, although they also may require more intensive product development effort.

The top five categories of specialty foods most purchased last year were cheeses; condiments; frozen and refrigerated entrees, pizzas and convenience foods; chips, pretzels and snacks; and frozen and refrigerated meats, poultry and seafood.

Silver Moond Ice Cream
This is no plain vanilla: Silver Moon adds a touch of Tennessee bourbon plus vanilla bean to its vanilla ice cream.

Since 1972, the SOFIs, formerly known as the NASFT Product Awards, have honored the most outstanding representatives of the specialty foods industry. At first, the only two categories awarded were Outstanding Domestic Product and Outstanding Imported Product. Most of the specialty foods on the market at that time came from Europe.

Today, however, the specialty foods category has greatly expanded. There are awards for appetizers, baked goods, chocolates, condiments, diet products, organic products, soups, sauces, dressings, beverages, meats and seafood and more. In fact, they cover 33 award categories, which reflect the breadth and diversity of the specialty food category.

They also have their own trade show; actually two. NASFT's Summer Fancy Food Show was in New York June 27-29, just about the time this magazine was going to press. The next Winter Fancy Food Show will be in San Francisco Jan. 16-18, 2011.

An award-winning idea
What does it take to create an award-winning specialty food? An inspired idea, some real-life experience and a ton of technical know-how.

Sheri Tate, creator, president and CEO of Silver Moon Desserts (www.silvermoondesserts.com), Los Gatos, Calif., left a successful 12-year career as a Silicon Valley technology industry executive to turn a hobby into an award-winning dessert. Inspired by memories of her mother's locally renowned, hand-cranked ice cream and sorbet desserts, Tate turned technical savvy into culinary art and in 2008 launched Silver Moon Desserts.

The company specializes in sophisticated, "adults-only" delights made from fresh, natural ingredients, locally produced milk and premier liqueurs. In 2009, Silver Moon Desserts earned the SOFI Silver Award from the NASFT for Outstanding Product Line. The Nibble, a specialty food publication, also honored Silver Moon Desserts with its 2009 Fancy Food Show Silver Star for excellence and innovation. Originally serving only caterers, country clubs and high-end hotels and restaurants, Silver Moon Desserts expanded into retail last year.

As the categories of the SOFIs have expanded so have the ingredients that serve the artists — their palette of the palate, so to speak. The expansion of categories has come to match span of consumer interest, from placing a premium on pure gourmet tastes to the marriage of health and culinary art. All categories are represented with enthusiasm, and all find support in the innovations of ingredient providers.

"It's insightful to frame innovation as it relates to food," says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California (www.bluecal-ingredients.com), Rancho Santa Margarita Calif., which specializes in "highly purified botanical extracts and specialty ingredients using raw materials from around the world." McCollum continues: "Artists always push the limits, and our innovative ingredients are designed to offer a way for these artists to create better foods that also offer health benefits and longevity."

According to McCollum, the need to reduce sugar intake and offer foods with lower calories will continue to push culinary artists toward considering ways to improve their new creations while considering functionality. Perhaps a small step in that direction was Blue California's late-June announcement that its stevia-derived sweetener Good&Sweet will be available early next year via a more-natural fermentation process. "It gives culinary artists a way to produce deliciously sweet delicacies, desserts and confectionaries while reducing calories and permitting the important ‘all-natural' label designation," she explains.

"While the creation of a specialty food may start with an idea, it must be supported with the right ingredients, packaging and manufacturing technology," says Winston Boyd, vice president and chief chemist for Lawrence Foods Inc. (www.lawrencefoods.com), Elk Grove Village, Ill. Lawrence Foods specializes in designing and creating fillings and toppings, bar components, bakery mixes and a number of menu kits that satisfy the unique performance requirements of processors in need of special applications.

"A critical part of the specialty product development process is having a complete understanding of the vision of the chef or food scientist creating the final product," adds Boyd. "You have to start by engaging the most basic of skills: listening, asking questions and collaborating with the designer to develop a mutual understanding. From here it's a matter of employing creativity in utilizing the resources at our disposal to forge a unique solution that addresses the technical and performance challenges. We use a combination of broad and deep technical skills coupled with an intuitive insight into food and processing systems so we can routinely deliver the functionality and appeal that our customers seek."

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